The death of Newport West MP Paul Flynn in February has left a gaping vacuum in the Labour Party in Wales. With his departure the Party’s last example of a free-thinking, independent-minded, non-conforming, socialist, libertarian, republican Welshman has gone, leaving it as nothing more than a value-free meal-ticket for evasive managerial careerists, bossy-boot identitarian box-tickers and cripplingly conventional British nationalists, meekly implementing the monetarist madness decreed by their masters in London. Flynn passionately campaigned on issues no other Labour MP (or AM) in Wales would touch: in favour of the legalisation of cannabis, animal rights, proportional representation, deeper devolution, the Welsh language, internationalism and peace; and against the monarchy, the House of lords, Labour’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear power and weapons, the destruction of nature, the unchecked power of big business and the insane tenets of perpetual economic growth. What’s more, he was highly intelligent, well read, witty, articulate and cultured, as well as an entertaining, perceptive blogger and writer of seven published books, including the definitive, hilarious and scabrous demolition of the Blair-era Welsh Labour Party, Dragons led by Poodles (1999). There is nobody remotely approaching his calibre among the other 27 Labour MPs in Wales.
For 32 years Paul Flynn was a superb, immensely popular constituency MP, always on the side of the downtrodden Newport West electorate, as well as a breath of fresh air in the rank Westminster cess-pit, the backbenchers’ backbencher par excellence, speaking truth to power with lucidity and charm. The by-election to replace him took place last week and the seat was duly held by the Labour candidate Ruth Jones in a contest completely overshadowed by the mind-boggling Brexit chaos, turmoil, stress and jeopardy that the criminally inept and negligent Conservative Party is inflicting on its cherished Britain. On a pitiful 37% turnout, reflecting the widespread apathy and ignorance created by the overwhelming dominance of the ‘British’ perspective in Wales, both Labour and the Tories, who came second, saw their share of vote reduced – Labour by modest advances from a very low start point for Plaid, the LibDems and the Greens; the Tories by continuing seepage to their hooligan outriders UKIP along with a rag-bag of nasty nutters. The fact that there are 7,000 people in Newport West still willing to vote Conservative, despite centuries of indisputable evidence that this is an irredeemably wicked organisation patently unfit to govern anything, says it all about this depressing, damaged, dysfunctional corner of Wales. And the fact that 700 voted for the various vile far-far-right candidates only underlines how frail and vulnerable Wales is to malevolent forces without a media, a public realm, a collective purpose and an independent government to defend it. Ruth Jones is harmless enough, an archetypal contemporary Labour Party woman: bland, consensual, uninspiring and robotic, prioritising niceness and inoffensiveness over getting down and dirty in political struggle. Her equivocating, fence-sitting responses when asked where she stood on the M4 relief road that the road lobby wants to plough through her constituency showed that she’s just one more Labour clone who will never rock the boat, and a poor substitute for principled, plucky Paul Flynn, who vehemently and surgically demolished the case for the road time and time again.
He was a pan-Celtic Cardiffian through and through. His Irish father had been wounded and taken prisoner in WW1 and left to survive in poor health back in Blighty, unable to pay medical fees from the callous British state’s miserably small War Pension. He died in his 50s when Paul was five, a tragedy that perhaps planted seeds of a commitment to the socialist dream of a National Health Service which Labour would bring into being after WW2 – cementing a Party loyalty that never wavered but never trumped his ideals and his independent spirit. His Welsh mother raised four children in grinding poverty in a humble terraced house in Thomas Street, Grangetown, while imparting both the Welsh language and bone-marrow socialism to bright, inquisitive Paul. The family were sceptical, secular Catholics and he went to St Patricks Catholic Primary School in nearby Lucknow Street (still there) and then the boys-only St Illtyd’s College in Courtenay Road, Splott (relocated to Llanrumney in 1963 then amalgamated with Heathfield House Catholic Girls School in 1987 to become St Illtyd’s Catholic High School; the former building in Courtenay Road Flynn knew so well was demolished in 2016). Flynn pulled off the difficult trick of retaining all that is good about Catholicism – the egalitarianism, communality and class-conscious solidarity – while ditching all that is bad – the authoritarianism, hypocrisy and mystical hog-wash. He had the brain and heart to join that special Cardiff sub-genre: the lapsed Catholic atheist bilingual Welshman, perfectly happy to admit that Once a Catholic…
His funeral was held last month at ‘Newport Cathedral’, the Church in Wales’s St Woolos (Gwynllyw) up on Stow Hill, site of an ancient Welsh ‘llan’ predating Christianity itself. The architectural jewel was the only building in Newport with the appropriate resonance, seriousness and quality, let alone anywhere near the capacity to accommodate all those in the city wanting to bid farewell to one of the good guys. Paul Flynn suffered in his final years. He suffered with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis and he suffered with the pain of seeing fascism on the march again, his socialist values trashed, the planet being ransacked, Wales debased and, most of all, the mass suffering of the people. But I console myself that he would have known one thing for sure as he slipped away: the fight for freedom, truth, justice and peace will never die.